Monday, January 7, 2019

Armadillos Met in Plenary Session


The annual Mid-South conference of Armadillos International met at Frog Level earlier this week. Armand Armadillo of Bartholomew Bayou presided in this, his last year at the helm. His rallying speech was as rousing as it was informative.

I was one of five biped journalists invited to the venerable event and only two of us showed up—Pansy Purdom of the New Orleans Picayune and me of the De Queen Bee. Pansy managed to get a short personal interview with President Armand himself, but I had to satisfy myself with my hasty notes from the initial oration. The high points were as follows:

All armadillos were called upon to snuff out the false rumor that their kind arose from a possum knowing a turtle (in the Biblical sense) and bringing forth young. It is a canard perpetrated by a northern tribe which thinks itself superior to all other animals. They are known for spreading such lies. In Armand’s words, “Though we may resemble both the Opossum and the turtle, we have little in common with either. We are now, as we have been since Adam named us, a peculiar species. Our sows always have four young and they are always of the same gender, for they offer but one four-chambered egg for fertilization. In fact, my three brothers are here among us today and I would ask them to stand.”

Further, President Armand called upon the conference to stop jumping from fear on the highways and bi-ways of life. He explained that humans such as Patsy and me almost always take rapidly rolling hunks of metal with them when they travel. In his words, “When you find yourself in the path of one of these hastening metallic hunks, stay low. On my way here from Bartholomew Bayou, I saw countless sail armadillos, that is, armadillos that have been flattened enough for any farm boy to sail the carcass away into the void. None of these appeared to have met their fate in the wheel path of the hunks, but rather, I surmise, the deceased jumped from fear, even though the vehicle harmlessly straddled the unfortunate creature. Staying low would have preserved life, manifold and variform, as I noted bunches of raccoons and opossums who had met the same fate. Jumping is fatal, so, my friends, stay low.”

As the sage creature spoke, I began to ponder his words for any wisdom they may offer my own kind. Jumping to conclusions, for example, is often devastating in relationships. In doing so, we ascribe motives that may not be and probably are not those of the ones we falsely adjudge. Also, I noted that there are unfounded rumors about our own human origin that Armand’s words may remedy. Are we humans an evolved species or one called out for a special purpose from the get-go? I conclude that Armand is right. Rumors are nothing more than false etiologies and much of what we read about origin of our species smacks of compounded rumor.

Patsy shared a bit of her private talk with Armand. She told me he said that staying low and honoring the truth about our origins are related to each other. I did not understand that one and I don’t see how Armand could have known the Bible. She said he quoted Job as saying, “I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Another Name for Love


We had delicious roasted rabbit and hot sausage dressing for lunch Christmas. My wife made the dressing and the wise old man furnished the rabbits. He is a hand on a rabbit and goat operation near Ruston, La. He drove up here in a wreck of a 50’s model Studebaker truck—not restored in the least. He said the truck belonged to his new girlfriend.

“What about your sweetheart in Denton, sir?”

“Her funeral was just after Independence Day, Dan.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I had not heard.”

“No, you wouldn’t have. I was with her when she passed. She had suffered from worsening emphysema for several years. She died on the couch in her apartment. I was holding her hand when suddenly she said, ‘Look, someone has projected a picture of Mama on the wall.’ I did not see anything projected on the wall. ‘Did you do that?’ I told her I did not. After a weak fit of coughing she said, ‘It was probably Nelda, then.’ Nelda was her sister who died last year in Dime Box, Tx.

“I ran away from home when I was a kid and went to live with my uncle Bobo in Dime Box, you know, Dan.” I did not know that, but I nodded anyway. “That’s when I met Zelda and Nelda. One of my jobs on Uncle Bobo’s place was to ride 14 miles into town twice a week on a knock-kneed mule for the mail and whatever staples were required. Uncle Bobo and Aunt Mable raised vegetables, killed a hog every year and kept an abundance of chickens. They only had three books on the place, a Bible, a Hazlitt and a dictionary, so I craved reading materials beyond these, so I would stop at Zelda’s and Nelda’s mother’s beauty salon on the edge of Dime Box—there was a hand-lettered sign reading Hair Helper dangling from the mailbox. I treated the sisters like librarians. They had a lot of books and Nelda liked me. Zelda not so much. She would saddle her pony and ride a few miles back towards Uncle Bobo’s with me. We often stopped at the spring and talked. Because of my dictionary studies, she could not stump me on definitions or spelling.”

My wife interrupted, “Sir, what do you make of the projection on the wall?”

“Either hallucination or glimpse into spiritual reality. People often see deceased loved ones at the moment of death, you know. She said a peculiar thing right before her last rasp, Mrs. Ford. She said, ‘Knowing is another name for love.’ Nelda did not pay much attention to Audubon, who said much the same thing, as did Red Warren. It struck me that she had been in first-hand contact with an essential truth of existence, if for only a brief moment. Or maybe that was the dawning of her new life. Probably so.”

My wife asked, “Sir, do you think she meant that love means knowing someone deeply—being deeply interested on other people—being self-forgetful? Not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less and others more. Is that what she meant?”

“I’m not sure. Please pass the rabbit.”

Monday, November 26, 2018

Expectations in Relationships


“How can I please you if I don’t know what you expect?” That is the salient question in many relationships. Thus, it would seem to be important for both parties to communicate requirements clearly. We should express general expectations such as being fair minded: if it’s good for the goose, it’s good for the gander. Both parties should communicate general expectations about being treated as one wishes to be treated, or about casting aside ego and truly expressing interest in the feelings, pursuits or desires of the other.

The writer of the ancient book of Micah in holy writ gets specific about expectations. In the New International Version of the Bible, Micah, chapter six, verse eight, we find these words, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” And, in relationships, it would appear that justice, mercy and humility solve a lot of problems.

Most of us are familiar with that often-replicated statue of Lady Justice. She is blindfolded, holding a perfectly balanced scale in her left hand. In her right, there is a sword, pointed down to a book, presumably opened to Exodus 20, the 10 Commandments, upon which our idea of justice is founded. The blindfold denotes equality: all are to be treated the same under the law. The scale represents even-handedness—the just do not cheat anyone in any fashion. The sword gives us a view of the power of the law and the fact that it points to the old law of Moses gives credence to the venerable ideas upon which much of the Judeo-Christian world is based.

The second requirement, that of mercy, is certainly related to justice, but goes beyond it in human relationships. What has come to be known as the Golden Rule, treat others the way you want to be treated, has its counterpart in many world religions. In Christianity, it means preferring others to yourself. Part of the Great Commandment given by Jesus is to love others as we love ourselves. Note that we must love ourselves before we can love others. There is no room for low self-esteem, but too much ego fouls things up, too. Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird says that one must put himself into the shoes of others and walk around a little bit to understand them. Being willing to be so shod is a primary requirement for merciful relationships.

Now, that final requirement is double-barreled—walk humbly with God. When you leave a person who is truly humble, you do not say, “Wow, that person was self-effacing and unpretentious.” Chances are you say, “That person seemed truly interested in me.” A truly humble person is self-forgetful and other-centered. That kind of demeanor goes a long way in healing broken relationships. But what about the “with God” part? I don’t know about you, but I cannot be just, merciful and humble on my own.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Does the Past Exist?


I have studied the works of the great Mississippi writer, William Faulkner, in depth for a long time. One statement he made has perplexed me all along. He said there is no such thing as “was.” He explained that if “was” existed, there would be no cause for grief or sorrow. He meant that we would lose nothing if the past was not past. But it is, isn’t it? What is he talking about?

St. Augustine wrote that the past is nothing but a present memory and that the future is but a present expectation. All we have, in Augustine’s view, is the “now” and once we say the word “now,” it instantly becomes part of the past. So, Augustine’s conception plays into the idea that time is fluid. The French philosopher Bergson’s conceived of time that way. To him, time is durational, not sequential. For example, when we meet someone new, we never learn about that person’s life sequentially, from birth to the present, but durationally, a little segment here and a little there. Stream-of-consciousness writing grew from that idea.

Another Frenchman, the novelist Proust, brought this durational sense to bear beautifully in his art. He coined the terms voluntary remembrance and involuntary remembrance. The voluntary kind occurs when we put forth effort to remember a name, a place, an experience or an idea. Involuntary remembrances are those seemingly forgotten moments of the past that are brought back by a sensation: a smell, a sound, a touch, a glimpse or a taste. (As an aging fellow, I find myself struggling more and more with the voluntary kind, but the involuntary ones happen easily now and more often).

For example, the smell of freshly cut watermelon brings back a specific memory of my early childhood in great detail. It happened on the porch of the old farm house in Louisiana where I lived the first part of my life. I was three years old or younger and Aunt Sarah cut open a large yellow-meat watermelon and handed me a slice. It must have been a happy experience, seeing that my joy level rises with that stimulating smell from well over a half-century later. In the same way, organ music makes me sleepy. Perhaps that is because radio soap operas came on right after noon during my childhood nap time. These programs were always introduced by organ music, full tremolo.

So, maybe Faulkner, literary giant that he was, erred in his opinion of “was.” It does exist, if only in our psyches. Shrinks make a living off the idea that nothing we ever experience is lost. We may not be able to call up any memory we want to voluntarily, but involuntary remembrances may be proof that everything is recorded. I have read books on life-after-death experiences of those who have expired and somehow revived. One constant feature of the reports is that the lives of the newly dead are reviewed—they see their entire experience on earth in a flash, non-sequentially, durationally. As suspect as many of these accounts are, they do give some credence to the fact that “was” exists. Sorry, William Faulkner, I still like you.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Balance


The wise old man came for Sunday lunch at the Tavern. He is as thin as a wafer but eats like a Sumo wrestler. He exploited the buffet with gusto. “You must have been hungry,” I observed. “I noticed that myself,” he replied with a chuckle. After lunch, we rocked on the front porch and talked about a great range and mixture of topics.

My mountain bicycle stays on the porch and he wanted to know all about it, from the disc brakes to the 21-speed derailleurs. He said he judged it to be a well-balanced machine that required good balance from a rider. “Have you ever wrecked it,” he wanted to know. “Just one time, at a dead standstill,” I replied. “I had stopped at the bottom of the great hill that rises from Pioneer Cemetery when I attempted to mount the vehicle against gravity and gravity won.” We laughed about that a good while until he lit on the topic of balance.

“You know, Dan, Horace, the first Century rhetorician believed in balance in speaking and writing. The old Roman wrote that all artful communication must be dulcet et utile, meaning sweet and useful; we would say entertaining and enlightening. And, those two elements, Horace wrote, must be kept in balance. If the scale tips too far in the direction of entertainment, the communication seems trivial and inconsequential. On the other hand, if the communication works too hard at enlightenment, it gets boring and loses the audience’s attention. So, balance makes the writing or speaking both fun and pithy.”

The wise old man gratefully received the hot tea my wife brought out. Providing crocheted lap robes because of the dropping temperature, she joined us on the porch. She said, “What was that about balance?” The wise old man said, “You know, Mrs. Ford, I work on a donkey and goat ranch near Ruston and I have a couple of gelding donkeys I plow with down there. Their names are Check and Balance. Check is the absent-minded one, not always knowing and obeying gee, haw, whoa and back up. Balance, however, is obedient, but not as strong and hardy as Check. Between the two of them, we get the job done, though it sometimes takes considerable negotiation.”

“Makes me proud to be an American,” my wife joked. The wise old man laughed so heartily that he jostled his tea. Then he said, “Thank God for checks and balances in our government. Lady Justice requires it. You know, that statue, in ancient iterations, had a sword in the hand not occupied with the fulcrum and scales. It was pointed down to the Ten Commandments, the very place our formalized sense of justice comes from. Though Justice is blind, she is poised to protect the law. That is balance in itself: peace is the goal, but justice must be protected.

“Wow,” my wife said, “you are always a welcome visitor. How did you get here today?” I rode the train and took a taxi. I’ve been down in Denton with my girlfriend. I lead a balanced life, and she keeps me in check.”

Monday, October 1, 2018

Home Again


The premise of Thomas Wolfe’s great novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, is that we change to such a degree when we are away from home for any length of time that home seems different when we go back there. Also, people who have stayed at home change, too, so, those visions in our absence of home as utopia are shattered upon our return.

Robert Frost’s narrative poem, “Death of the Hired Man,” reiterates the friction brought about by change, both in those who wander and in those who stay at home. Silas, the hired man, comes back ostensibly to help with haying, but Warren, the farm owner, and his wife, Mary, sense that he has come back to die. Quite cynically, Warren defines home as the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Mary, however, says that home is something granted that you don’t deserve. Silas prevails and has his way in the midst of all the changing circumstances. It is as if Frost believes that no one deserves the blessings of home, but everyone’s longing for home should be honored.

My own longing for home was intense during my three-year tour of duty in Germany. When I finally got home, though, I realized that everything had changed, both in my folks and in me: Mother and Pop seemed to have grown and changed as much as I had, and I quickly realized that we had grown in different directions altogether.

Peter, as depicted in the last chapter of John’s gospel, had grown dramatically in a direction very different from his familiar occupation of fisherman. Nevertheless, we find him attempting to return to the trade, even though his life had been significantly altered by recent mind-blowing events. Camping at the lake, one night, he said, “I’m going fishing,” and several of his companions jumped into the boat with him. They fervently fished all night long but caught nothing. At about dawn, a fellow standing on the bank the length of a football field away, said, “Hey, y’all, any luck?” They gave the fisherman’s shrug. He said, “Throw the net on the other side of the boat. That’s where the fish are.” When they pulled in the net, they had 153 nice ones. That’s when John said, “It is the Lord.”

At that, Peter put on his coat and jumped into the water. Ordinarily, one would strip down to jump in, but Peter probably thought he was going to be walking on the water again, since it was the Lord over there on the bank. He had to swim on in though and Jesus had some fish cooking and some bread toasting on coals. He said, bring some of those you caught and add them. Come have breakfast. He already had something cooking and wanted them to participate. That is the Lord.

So, things had changed radically for Peter. He wanted to return home, that is, to the familiar occupation of fishing. However, he found that he had changed and that Jesus had changed his profession to that of fishing for men, or, as he told Peter later in the day, feeding his sheep. When we realize, “It is the Lord,” everything changes. You can’t go home again.

Monday, September 24, 2018

When a Lie is Not a Lie


Each blind person in the famous parable of the elephant reported that the creature was something other than what it actually was—a rope, a tree, a wall. Our perceptions are often not absolute truth. There is an absolute truth, though. The elephant existed, though perceptions of it were diverse. We should not get stuck on initial impressions, but keep looking for the elephant as it truly is.

A false story is a lie only if it is intended to deceive. In fact, some false stories can tell a deeper truth than factual ones. For example, Aesop’s fables are obviously false on the surface—animals cannot talk—but they contain morals and other life applications that could not be communicated as effectively without the narrative. Also consider that statement ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth about removing the log hanging out of your eye before attempting to remove a speck from your companion’s. The moral of judging yourself before condemning others comes through much better by way of that image than by abstract moralizing.

Similarly, Aesop’s fable of The Dog and the Wolf illustrates that freedom is more important than comfort. A famished wolf in the fable creeps into the yard of a well-fed dog and compliments him on his sleek appearance. The dog is comfortable and happy, but the wolf notices a worn place on the dog’s neck and comments upon it. The dog says, “That is where they keep me tied up. You see, I belong to the humans in that house.” The wolf acts out his reply by fading back into the woods. Thus, the fable asserts that it is better to be free and hungry than captive and well-fed.

So, there is a place for false stories of the kind that tell a deeper truth than fact. But, chances are that when you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, you do not wax parabolic. You tell it like it is, as the Hippies used to chant during Viet Nam and Watergate. And, to some degree, they were right to question language of obfuscation and political expediency. However, we should not question one’s honesty just because he or she has a command of a sophisticated vocabulary. The late Democrat Sam Irwin of North Carolina, who became famous for his command of language and his almost British Southern accent during the Watergate hearings, was once questioned as to how he knew a document carried a specific meaning. His reply was classic: “Because I read English; it's my mother tongue.”

Our mother tongue should be designed to get rid of everything that is not the truth. As in Ephesians 4, we should practice speaking the truth in love. Just as the sculptor scrapes away all that is not the work of art in a block of marble, the skilled speaker or writer gets rid of obfuscation and gets down to the nitty gritty truth.  Truth is not relative. It is one thing, spin it how we will.